How healthy is ‘Waakye’, a Ghanaian delicacy for all ages?

BY: Franklin Brian Apea-Bah (PhD)

Ghana is so blessed with a plethora of cuisines and delicacies that are as varied as our cultural diversity. One of the most important among these is waakye.

The name waakye is from the Hausa language and means "beans". The full name of the cuisine, however, is "Tshinkafa da waakye" which means rice and beans. As the name implies, waakye is a dish comprising rice cooked with beans in a water extract of dye sorghum leaves.

It is usually eaten with tomato stew, hot pepper sauce (shito), gari, spaghetti, and an animal source of protein (fish, meat or eggs), preferably as breakfast or lunch. The choice of waakye as breakfast or lunch agrees with the saying that "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper", an indication that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Although white rice is typically used in waakye preparation, brown rice (whole-grain rice) will be a better option since brown rice is a good source of dietary fibre and vitamins. Dietary fibre is good for movement in the bowels and can help prevent constipation, which is arguably implicated in colonic cancer. Rice is a generous source of carbohydrates, typically starch, which provides energy for our daily work. Beans, whether cowpea beans or kidney beans, provide starch (source of energy), proteins for building the body and repairing worn out tissue, and vitamins that promote metabolism or energy generation for the body. The sorghum leaves impart a lovely purple colour which is distinctive to waakye. Apart from these nutritional and aesthetic benefits, do waakye eaters derive any other benefits?

Franklin Brian Apea-Bah (PhD)

In a recent paper published in August 2021, in the scientific journal Foods (an MDPI publication; impact factor 4.35: 2020), the author of this article led a research study that investigated the antioxidant potential of waakye in comparison to cooked white rice. The study was conducted under the mentorship of Prof. Trust Beta, a Tier I Canada Research Chair in Grain-based Functional Foods, at the University of Manitoba, Canada. The investigators chose antioxidant potential as an indicator of health benefits because antioxidants provide protection against chemical radicals that can damage proteins, lipids and even DNA in the human body. Such damage can lead to many diseases including cardiovascular and coronary heart diseases as well as various cancers. The investigators wanted to know whether the beans added to rice, and the dye sorghum leaves water extract imparted any antioxidant principles that made waakye a healthier alternative to white rice.

The scientists discovered that waakye has 9 times more antioxidant potential than boiled white rice. They further identified the chemical compounds present in the rice dishes that imparted the antioxidant potential. Three classes of chemical compounds that are naturally present in whole grains (cereals and legumes) were implicated as responsible for this health benefit. The compound classes are phenolic acids, flavonoids and anthocyanins. When the food ingredients were investigated, the scientists found that phenolic acids were present in the white rice, beans and dye sorghum leaves. The flavonoids were present in beans and sorghum leaves but were absent from white rice, while the anthocyanins were present only in the dye sorghum leaves. Anthocyanins are plant pigments and are responsible for the lovely colours found in some plants, such as the distinctive blue colour of blueberries, black colour of black berries and the purple colour of aubergine (black beauty). Anthocyanins are strong antioxidants and therefore cooking the rice and beans in a water extract of dye sorghum leaves, increases the antioxidant benefits of waakye.

The research study therefore demonstrates that the process of cooking white rice together with beans in sorghum leaves extract, produces waakye which provides not only nutrients, but also antioxidant compounds that makes waakye eaters healthy. So, the next time you buy white rice, remember to also buy beans and dye sorghum leaves, and treat yourself and your family to a delicious, healthy waakye dish.

Written by Franklin Brian Apea-Bah (PhD)
Food Scientist, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB, Canada
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